Brown pelican struggles to swallow due to a fish carcass

January 18, 2024

A brown pelican was among the forty-eight animals admitted to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida this past week. Other admissions include a big brown bat, a blue-headed vireo, a herring gull, an anhinga, and a peninsula cooter.

The von Arx Hospital received a report regarding a brown pelican in distress on Residents’ Beach on Marco Island.

The brown pelican was struggling to regurgitate a large fish carcass stuck in its throat. Hospital staff reached out to our Volunteer Critter Couriers on Marco Island for assistance. Volunteer, Holly Erker, responded. When she arrived at the beach, the pelican had regurgitated the fish and contained in a large dog crate by Community Service Officer, Ira Warder, and was ready for transport to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital.

A photo texted to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy shows a pelican in distress after ingesting a fish carcass too large to swallow.

A physical exam showed the pelican was quiet, yet responsive to handling, in fair body condition and had mild increased respiratory effort. A radiograph showed the pelican had a fish barb lodged in its throat, encased in scar tissue meaning the injury was not fresh or related to the current situation.

Since the pelican arrived at the hospital late in the evening, staff administered pain medication and an antibiotic and settled the bird in a quiet recovery space to rest overnight.

The following morning, the pelican was lying down resting calmly. Staff added oral fluids and Chinese herbs to the existing treatment plan. A fish diet was offered as well, but the pelican showed no interest. Additional pain medication was added at the mid-day treatment. By the evening treatment, the pelican eagerly ate the fish.

The brown pelican continues to gain strength and recover in the bird room at the von Arx Wildlife Hospital.

Brown pelican on the beach struggling to swallow a fish carcass

The situation with the brown pelican wasn’t an isolated incident. A double-crested cormorant was recently admitted with a fish stuck in its throat and staff had reports of a brown pelican with a fish stuck in its throat at Bayview Park. Unfortunately, that pelican flew off into the mangroves with the fish still stuck in its throat making it impossible to rescue. 

Please do not feed fish scraps to pelicans or any other shorebirds.

You may think it is entertaining or an act of kindness, but it can have devastating effects and is illegal. Pelicans typically eat small baitfish that weigh less than 1 ounce.

A large fish carcass, such as the one the pelicans attempted to eat, puts pressure on the birds’ airway impeding their ability to breathe leading to respiratory distress. If the fish spines puncture through the soft neck tissue and esophagus, it becomes impossible for the bird to regurgitate the fish.

The lodged fish carcass will begin to rot making it impossible for the bird to eat and ultimately causes a slow, painful death. Feeding pelicans and other wildlife causes them to lose their natural fear of people. Pelicans are easily habituated meaning they will begin to expect handouts making it more likely for them to go after baited hooks when anglers cast their lines.

Never feed handouts to wildlife and always dispose of fish carcasses in marked disposal tubes or a lidded trash can.

Recent Releases

Three raccoons, a peninsula cooter, an eastern cottontail, a striped mud turtle, two red-shouldered hawks, an eastern screech owl, a broad-winged hawk were released this past week.

Opportunities to Help

Please visit the Conservancy website to view all of the amazing volunteer opportunities at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Your volunteer time, donations, and memberships are vital in helping us continue our work to protect Southwest Florida’s water, land, wildlife and future.

Joanna Fitzgerald is Director of the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, 1495 Smith Preserve Way, Naples, Florida 34102. Call 239-262-2273 or see